He thought he had Covid, but it turned out to be a deadly fungal infection spread by dust
One couple, José and Carmen León, from Lemoore, California, had weathered the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic with five children at home and survived Carmen’s three-week hospitalization for the virus in late 2021.
Then, in March 2022, José fell ill. “Finally, when we felt that we were improving, we received a blow with this,” Carmen, a receptionist at an ophthalmology office, tells ‘Insider’.
“This is the valley fever, a life-threatening fungal infection that has been on the rise in recent years. But Jose wasn’t diagnosed until about a month after his symptoms began. Meanwhile, his condition deteriorated and he is still recovering to this day. “Things would have been so much better,” he told ‘Insider,’ “if I had been diagnosed sooner.”
Jose, a 40-year-old machine operator at a cheese factory, used to weigh around 200 pounds and exercised almost every day. But last spring, he started getting out of breath at the gym and found himself so fatigued that he jogged in place at work just to stay awake.
A couple of weeks later, he developed a cough and body aches, then a fever and night sweats. But he was vaccinated twice against Covid-19 and the tests continued to come back negative.
At a local clinic, the doctor told José that he suspected valley fever, but José’s primary care doctor did not follow his recommendation to get tested. Instead, he took X-rays of her chest, which was so badly damaged that she was told to go straight to the ER.
But even there, the doctors they thought it was a serious case of Covid. Carmen said that she was sent home with medications, including steroids, for her to take for a week, but José was not getting better.
“He stopped wanting to get out of bed, he didn’t want to eat,” Carmen said. So he was taken back to the ER, where he was finally diagnosed with valley fever. The infectologist raised the urgency of her case from 7 (not so bad) to 1 (very bad), explains Carmen. By then he had already lost more than 20 kilos. “At this point, his lungs were completely white, it was full blown pneumoniaup to the throat”, says the woman.
José was treated with amphotericin B, a strong intravenous antifungal medication. He stayed in the hospital until the end of July to receive injections because his insurance would not cover them on an outpatient basis.
Now José is at home, but far from back to normal. He takes a daily oral antifungal medication that he will need to take for life and cannot return to work until 2023 at the earliest. “I feel much better,” he says, but that’s relative: now, says José, “I feel like I wake up with the flu every day”.
Valley fever, or Coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by inhaling spores of the fungus Coccidioideswhich is on the ground.
Not everyone who inhales the spores gets sick, but about 40% of those who do develop flu-like symptoms. About 1 in 10 patients may have serious side effectssuch as permanent lung damage. Rarely, people with valley fever die if the infection spreads to places such as the skin, joints, or spinal cord.
José said he wants people to know that valley fever is a potential cause of flu-like symptoms. “People need to know it exists.”
Not contagious, but spores have been increasingly found in unexpected areas. The fungus is known to live in the soils of the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico, Central America, and South America. When Carmen asked the doctor if there was anything else the family could do to support Jose’s recovery, she told him, “Move out of California.” “That is not an option for us,” says Carmen.